THE KIDS FROM CALARTS From left: Steve Hillenburg, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Mark Andrews (in ape suit), Jerry Rees, Chris Buck (with Viking helmet), John Musker, Genndy Tartakovsky, Leslie Gorin, Mike Giaimo, Brenda Chapman, Glen Keane, Kirk Wise (in beige sweater), Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter (with Lei), Rob Minkoff, Rich Moore, John Lasseter, and Henry Selick, in the famed CalArts classroom A113.
The Class That Roared
It was a staggering number. In November 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that directors who had been students in the California Institute of the Arts’ animation programs had generated more than $26 billion at the box office since 1985, breathing new life into the art of animation. The list of their record-breaking and award-winning films—which include The Brave Little Toaster, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, Pocahontas, Cars, A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, Corpse Bride, Ratatouille, Coraline—is remarkable. Even more remarkable was that so many of the animators not only went to the same school but were students together, in the now storied CalArts classes of the 1970s. Their journey begins, and ends, with the Walt Disney Studios. As director and writer Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) observes, “People think it was the businessmen, the suits, who turned Disney Animation around. But it was the new generation of animators, mostly from CalArts. They were the ones who saved Disney.”
In late 1966, Walt Disney lay dying. One of his last acts before succumbing to lung cancer was looking over the storyboards for The Aristocats, an animated feature he would not live to see. The Walt Disney Studios, the wildly successful entertainment empire he had founded with his brother, Roy O. Disney, as the Disney Brothers Studio, in 1923, was beginning to lose its way. Its animated films had lost much of their luster, and Disney’s original supervising animators, nicknamed the “Nine Old Men,” were heading for that Palm Springs at the end of the mind, either retiring or dying.
Two years earlier, Walt had run into science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury at a department store in Beverly Hills. Over lunch the next day, Disney shared with him his plans for a school that would train young animators, “taught by Disney artists, animators, layout people . . . taught the Disney way,” as former CalArts student Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie) described the school in the 1995 book Burton on Burton.
In the early years, starting in the late 30s, Disney animation had been gloriously realized by the Nine Old Men: Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, and Wolfgang Reitherman—all of whom had worked with Walt on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That 1937 classic, Disney’s first animated feature film, had been given an honorary Academy Award and was beloved by children, adults, critics, artists, and intellectuals everywhere. As Neal Gabler, Disney’s biographer, observed, “After Snow White, one could not really go back to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” Snow White ushered in Disney’s golden age of animation; over the next five years there was a veritable parade of beautifully crafted animated films, all now classics: Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia, and Bambi. The next two decades would bring Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians. But as the 60s waned, it became apparent, as Burton later noticed, that Disney had not gone out of its way to train new people.
“Nobody was being trained in full animation anymore except [at] Disney—it was literally the only game in town,” recalls Bird. “There was a point where I was probably one of a handful of young animators in the world . . . . But no one was really interested in that in my town. You would get a lot more attention if you were the backup quarterback for a junior-college football team. That would be way more impressive than being mentored by Disney animators.”
In a country roiled by anti-Vietnam War protests and tremendous social upheaval, animation seemed irrelevant, relegated to commercials and Saturday-morning cartoon programs for children, though animation as an art form had not been originally intended just for kids. At Disney there was even talk of shutting down the animation department altogether. Nonetheless, Walt approved the storyboards for The Aristocats.
“So they made the movie and it was a huge hit, and that’s when they said, ‘We can keep this going. We need some more people,’ ” recalls Nancy Beiman, one of the first women students at CalArts and now a writer, illustrator, and professor at Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ontario. But where were the new animators going to come from?
In the early 30s, Disney had sent several of his animators to study at the Chouinard Art Institute, in Los Angeles, because he wanted classically trained artists, and he had maintained a keen interest in the art school. After discovering that it was having financial difficulties, he pumped money into it, and sought to include it in his grand plan for a “City of the Arts,” the multi-disciplinary academy he had described to Bradbury two years before his death. After Chouinard merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, in 1961, Disney was able to realize his vision: he would build a single school devoted to the arts, incorporating Chouinard and the conservatory, and he would call it the California Institute of the Arts, nicknamed CalArts.
“I don’t want a lot of theorists,” he explained to Thornton “T.” Hee, one of Disney’s early animators and directors, who would end up teaching at CalArts. “I want to have a school that turns out people that know all the facets of filmmaking. I want them to be capable of doing anything needed to make a film—photograph it, direct it, design it, animate it, record it.”
Walt initially had big plans: he wanted Picasso and Dalí to teach at his school. That didn’t happen, but many of Disney’s early animators and directors would teach at CalArts, which opened its doors in 1970 and moved a year later to Valencia, California. Walt had traded ranch land he owned for the site of the campus close to the freeway, and as he had bequeathed, when he died, in 1966, roughly half of his fortune went to the Disney Foundation in a charitable trust. Ninety-five percent of that bequest would go to CalArts, the eventual home of his new, innovative Character Animation Program.
“You can blame it on Fantasia,” says John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), another former CalArts student. Indeed one of the classic images from Fantasia—the conductor Leopold Stokowski reaching down to shake hands with Mickey Mouse—summed up nicely what Walt had envisioned for his school: a kind of League of Nations of the arts.
Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster) was the first student accepted into the Character Animation Program, in 1975. Something of a prodigy in high school, he had already been taken under the wing of Eric Larson, one of Disney’s top animators, who had created, among other things, Peter Pan’s soaring flight over London in the 1953 Disney movie. Though still in high school, Rees was given a desk near Larson’s and was invited to show up during vacations from school, to work on animation under the master’s tutelage. “The studio used to call the house and ask when I was going on my next school vacation,” Rees remembers with a laugh. Shortly after graduating from high school, he was invited to become an assistant to Jack Hannah, the retired Disney animator who was running the Character Animation Program. It was a position that gave him access to the Disney “morgue,” the archive that held the artwork from all of Disney’s animated films.
“So I would just call up the morgue and go, ‘There’s this great scene in Pinocchio where Jiminy Cricket’s running along and he’s trying to put his jacket on while he moves, and it was just amazing and graceful,’ ” Rees recalls. “They would make super-high-resolution copies in their Xerox department, which actually was a huge machine that took up three different rooms on the studio lot.”
John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life), an athletic, personable guy who favored Hawaiian shirts, was the second student to be accepted. Lasseter grew up in Whittier, California, hometown of Richard Nixon. His mom was an art teacher at Bell Gardens High School. “That was back in the days when California schools were really great, and I had an amazing art teacher named Marc Bermudez,” he recalls. “I loved cartoons. I grew up drawing and watching them. And when I discovered as a freshman in high school that people actually made cartoons for a living, my art teacher started encouraging me to write to the Disney Studios, because I wanted to work for them one day.”
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